Finding Atlas

Annabelle Tate doesn't remember what life was like before the Colony. All she knows is that life during it is dreadful. When a citizen turns 17 they're automatically tested on their loyalty, agility, intelligence and mental well being. If they fail they go through an elusive process known as "fixing." When Annabelle fails she's whisked into a world of espionage, archery, instinct and brutality to fight and inspire a dying nation she once sought allegiance to.

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7. Memory

Moonlight slanted through the stained glass windows when the aircraft hovered overhead. Ladders flopped in the wind and I grappled to hold on and ascend the rungs. Langston and the others climbed slowly below me. The latch closed in a slow hiss and soon the imposing and grandiose structure of the Great Library became a beautiful gleaming dot beyond our reach. I sprawled myself lazily across the metal chairs and drifted off to a dreamless sleep. When I woke up Langston had seated himself beside me.

“I can’t believe I killed someone,” I examined my hands. The blood and detritus were under my nails, rimming around my cuticles. The man’s masked visage splashed its way like graphical paint across my mind, tearing through my subconscious. I heard the delicate snoring of Jackson and there was Devin writing on the frosted glass windows beside us. Rhea stared into nothingness across from us. I wondered if they were all hollowed out as I felt right now. Were they questioning the moralities of what they’d done? Were they puzzled at the blood staining their hands too?

I wanted to absolve myself of my sins. I wanted to kiss the cross around Leanne’s neck, to bow my head in reverence to the man nailed to it. Mother had told me crosses were Old World religious relics. People prayed and wore them around their necks, people used to go to places called churches to abstain from doing the very thing we’d all committed. A sin. I looked at Leanne as her eyes were closed and the words dripped from her lips in a steady stream of repentance. She was praying and it was beautiful.

 My face was colored red. There were splotches from my aggressive crying. I couldn’t stop the outpouring of emotion—the anger and sadness and guilt I felt, my missing Ellie and Miles and my parents. I wondered if they missed me too. I wondered if Ellie was crestfallen and wished on all of the blanketing of stars that I’d come home. Was she counting the constellations with Miles? Was he spinning her a tale of the heroism that I had left them for? The sacrifices that I had made to better the lives of our people?

 Langston found my hands. He had so many scars, so many imperfections marring such a privileged life. There were stories in those scars.

 “He had a family,” and I was crumbling into this boy I hardly knew a thing about. I was telling him about the bartering and he was smoothing my curls to the crown of my head. He was comforting and consoling me. I told him about how mom used to bake us cakes and lavish pastries with the scraps of day old dough she’d have chilling in the icebox in torn off plastic sheets. I told him about the croissants and the bread made with several different kinds of nuts. I told him about the paint she’d splatter on canvas and how she’d bury her knuckles in her mouth and cry for our grandparents.

“He would’ve killed you. I know we don’t know each other well at all but I didn’t want to see you die. I’m opposed to death.” And violence his amber eyes seemed to convey. I knew then that the Enforcers’ deaths were necessary. I put aside my grief and welcomed logic. Their response to us surrendering peacefully would’ve been imprisonment, torture and something far worse—fixing.

I told him how the Enforcers had stormed in and fixed my grandparents and how they forgot the names of their grandchildren. How they had torn into mother’s canvases, an array of paint splotching the walls in vivid color. Langston just listened and I learned his last name was Haynes and that his father worked in Province 3.

“Lovebirds,” I heard Devin mutter softly and he sang a song that I inferred to be from the Province he belonged to. The songs we had were solemn and sad, they bemoaned of tragedy and of the coal and the smoke that smoldered our hands and under our nails. It spoke of our hardened lives. I sung one now before Flea came and told us that Aidan was pleased. Before the aircraft soared through the cloud of smoke and the sea of glittering stars. Before the aircraft kissed the firmament and nearly scraped the ceiling of the towering channels of cave systems. Before we arrived in the wondrous epicenter of the Banished Lands.

“The books you collected are to go to children,” Aidan announced as he tied his hair back with an elastic band. The straight russet tresses caressed the nape of his neck when he swung his head any which way. I felt like Robin Hood—the vigilante I’d read about years ago who used to give to the poor and take from the rich. We were essentially performing a pious and selfless act.

“Why?” Langston questioned and he crinkled his nose. It reminded me of Collin and I momentarily wondered if the half-Korean was kissing another girl. Was he professing his love for her? It felt like ages since I’d seen the faces of my friends. Little by little my infatuation for him was dying into ash.

“Why not? Don’t you want to give some books to illiterate children, to be the harbinger of knowledge and relief, of hope and retribution,” there was that word again. I wonder what retribution signified for Aidan. I wondered what spurred him to collect us and do his admittedly good and prosperous bidding. But where would it get us? When would we strike back like he said we would? Or had we struck back already? Would a thousand pilfered books make all the difference to break the systemic workings of the upper crust of the Elite’s world?

I wondered …

“My father used to beat us—that’s how I got these scars.”

“But why?” I turned to Langston and my fingers found purchase in the fading welts, some fresh and some old from years of neglect and hatred. I could imagine the instruments of abuse he’d use: the belts and switches and chains and rulers. Why would a parent ever want to do this to their child?

“Drinking … gambling most of our money away … we didn’t have it easy all the time. Sometimes I’d go to the Market to barter—get something quick and hot to eat,” my eyes widened at that. This boy who looked to be so sure and healthy and strong ate from the hands of the poor? How had I not seen him wandering the packed streets made of gleaming bronze and steel? How had I not spotted him on the walkways that seemed to spire forever to the Pavilion and through the Hub? Had he camouflaged himself out of shame or simply because he knew that if an Enforcer spotted him he’d be either imprisoned or electrocuted to death?

“But that’s so risky why would you—“

“Put myself at such detriment? For my family, same as you would for Ellie and your twin brother, same as what we’re doing now. We all have stories,” he looked out at the faces of Rhea softened by sleep and Leanne kissing her cross and Devin and Jackson deep in audible slumber.

The hovercraft made not a sound as we descended amongst a row of shacks and houses with zinc roofing. People clambered out over scraps of metal and tires and rubber and there was the smell of burning kindling and something sulfuric in the air. It reminded me of the eggs that Miles tried to scramble.

“Rise and shine time to deliver some presents!” Flea smiled at Aidan’s announcement and we all filed out sleepily. We hefted the sack of books and Aidan told us we got to choose a few to keep for ourselves.

“Knowledge empowers you against your enemies,” and he patted me on the shoulder and sent me off with a hearty wink. The homes smelled of stewed meats: smoked ham and lambs and chicken and broths made of beef. Women were chasing their children around and kids were climbing the wreckage and ruins of what was once the Old Colony. These were the ghettoes of the Banished Lands and if we’d followed Ren and were fortunate enough to have survived the fixing without going mad, we would’ve resided here. An old woman looked endlessly at a point beyond us, her eyes a haunting glassy white, pearled and seemingly translucent.

“Don’t stare,” Jackson whispered and I averted my eyes. She had been fixed. Another person kept muttering for Ellis but Ellis must’ve never came because then they said, “And you left me,” over and over again. It was seemingly unbearable and I crossed my fingers that we’d be able to go back to our new home and sleep fitfully. I didn’t like this place it saddened me. Home with Ellie and Miles was better than this. I could see why it had gotten the horrid reputation that it did. These were where the rebels of old resided, where the surviving fixed were dropped off unceremoniously, broken off from family members, too fractured and disloyal and broken to reside with the rest of the Colony. It was angering.

We poured the books on the ground amongst the gray and black, amongst the smoldering ash and scraps of metal and the smell of burning things and stewing meats. Children were overjoyed and scrambled over each other, whooping and hollering and picking up these foreign objects and turning the books over this way and that with grime covered hands. I broke out into a smile and Devin just said, “Aye books for the wee ones!”

“This one’s got a pirate on it!?”

“Who’s Lewis Carroll?”

“Can we keep these,” a tiny girl who resembled Ellie tugged on my pants. I almost cried seeing the faint gash marring her beautiful round face.

“Of course you can,” and I patted her wreathing of curls and she smiled softly, “thank you,” and she was off, milling with the other children who soon grabbed almost every book in sight. Next came the parents, a crowd of hardened faces and steely eyed shifting glances. They nervously shifted from one foot to the other. Aidan had one foot on the rung as he watched us.

A man stepped from the crowd, the small girl’s father I guessed, his flaxen hair was covered in soot, and it shimmered gold in the amount of moonlight that streamed through holes in the cave. He pointed a bony finger at Aidan who didn’t look the least bit offended.

“I-Is that Aidan Quinn?”

Aidan was famous for this—stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, upsetting and shifting the balance, the polarity of the Elite to the poverty stricken peoples’ favors. He’d come here many a time. One could easily see that. He smiled, “Aye, I’ve brought some books Linus.” Linus? He knew this man?

“You’re not supposed to be back here.” Back here?

“What does he mean ‘back here’? You’ve lived here? Is this where you grew up?” Jackson asked desperately, trying to block the approaching Aidan from embracing the older man. Aidan ignored him and a flabbergasted Langston and I watched on as Aidan pushed Jackson aside and wordlessly embraced Linus. The little girl gleefully looked up at Aidan and uttered a word so heartbreaking and confusing that I wasn’t sure how to settle the stirring of emotions in the pit of my mind.

“Father… are you staying?”

“You know I can’t Sasha.”

“But why?”

“I have a lot of work to do but I promise I’ll come visit again,” and he proffered a book with intricate gleaming gold lettering on the cover: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “For my princess…be good to uncle Linus now,” he hugged her tightly then and I imagined he inhaled her scent and tried to memorize the feel of his little girl. I wondered if both Flea and Aidan were something more because Flea looked on longingly and embraced the little girl too. I wondered if those were her parents and the word sacrifice came up for me and I was crying and I knew that because I tasted salt on my lips.

They ran their fingers through her auburn tresses and Leanne stood beside us and pressed her fingers to her eyes and Rhea was soundless but just formed a little ‘O’ with her small mouth. It was heart wrenching to know what Aidan had given up, a young daughter, there was a slow slew of puzzle pieces that were his life. On the ride back I had so many questions:  if he had to leave his daughter who else had he left behind? Were he and Flea consummated? Was there really their daughter? What had happened to the rest of his family?

I thought of Langston getting beaten. It changed my perspective about him being an Elite. Just because he had everything within his reach didn’t mean his life wasn’t filled with hardships and it didn’t make his home life a happy stroll through the park either.

The ride was steady and smooth, Flea piloted the airship effortlessly with practiced hands. Aidan sat with us instead of lounging in the cockpit. I thought of mom tucking me in at night when I was younger. I thought of dad sparring with Miles and how sinuous Miles’s body was—fit for the mines—how girls probably lusted after my older brother. I shook the thoughts from my head, the memories, and focused on Aidan’s voice.

“My parents were fixed,” it was a tale he would continue on when we got back to our fortress of stone and metal. It was a tale that involved shocking images of brutality and one that would hone us and change our perspectives of everything we’d been taught, everything we knew forever. 

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